tv Tavis Smiley PBS July 16, 2012 2:30pm-3:00pm PDT
thank you. tavis: marcus samuelsson's rise to the ranks of celebrated chefs and restaurant owner could not be more unlikely. born in ethiopia, adopted and growing up in sweden. his passion for food led him to open the famed restaurant in harlem called red rooster. his book is called "yes, chef: a memoir." you doing all right? >> i am so happy to be here. tavis: i am always on a plane. i was on a plane a few weeks ago, and i was transfixed by the
story in "vogue" magazine and that you and your journey. i know your work as a chef. we have almost met half a dozen times. >> in chicago. tavis: and we have never quite met until today, but i remember reading that peace in "vogue" about the book, which i had not seen at the time, and i said to my staff, "i have to get the book." i did not know that much about marcus, and i am glad you're here to do the show today. i want to sit back and let you tell the story, but when i read about what your mother did to save your life and your sister -- >> we had tuberculosis in ethiopia, and we did not come from the capital. we came from a small place, and my mom, she walked for days with me and my sister to get to a hospital.
she was so focused on us getting short, us getting help, so she walked, she walked with us, and that is the last thing she did. she walked us to the hospital, and then she passed away. three months in a hospital, three months later, we got adopted, and then really my life started again. it is funny in life. the worst thing that can ever possibly happen to you can also be helpful in a way. that was our ticket out, and i would never forget that, what our mother did. i feel with the work i do now, i honor that. i represent that village in everything i do. tavis: she walked. she walked for days. she walked about 75 miles. 75 miles she walked with two kids to make sure she save those lives. do you recall, do you have any memories? >> i do not.
i have not seen a picture of my mother, and i talked about that in the book, but i know that woman. she may not have a lot of money, but she has a lot of wealth in dignity. she is strong, slim, and she wakes up at 2:00 in the morning and walks or two hours to get clean water for her kids. she can make a meal better than any celebrity chef that i know, and she is very spiritual, so i have seen that women, not just in africa, in ethiopia. i have seen that women in many places, and it was very important for me to write that for the reader to connect with that. you can come from nothing and have a lot. she gave me and my sister everything she had, and she saved us, and this gave me the opportunity, and my life started there, and my swedish parents, they were behind us and in front of us and next to us. every step of the way in life.
every time there was a tough thing happening, my parents were right there. tavis: what was it like growing up in ethiopia? there are not a lot of ethiopians in sweden. you stood out there. >> my parents were white. my cousin was korean. i had an aunt who was jewish. we actually had international family in sweden who had to deal with that at an early age. tavis: you had the u.n. in one house. >> we were strong. she knew that people would come and touch our hair and touch our skin. but we had this connection of love and family. tavis: what were the difficult parts of that journey?
your parents are trying to protect you. what are the difficult part about not being connected to your birth mother, being in a strange land. obviously, you are young, so you grow into what you know, but what are the difficulties. >> i think the challenge is always with identity and how you deal with race. the race question always comes in. i do not believe that children are racist, but there is a lot of sand box stuff that comes into it, but race and how do we deal with it, and my father gave me one set of tools to deal with it. my father told me that i could never be in a fight, never be in a fist fight, but he prepared me always for these things that would happen, not just when i was 11 or 12 but later on in life. my mom was just a mom, you know?
but i do think identity and cultural identity, searching for that, but we got something else. be got a lot of protection. we got a lot of love, and we figured out as kids how to overcome a lot of prejudice, and i got a lot of confidence. my parents gave me confidence. not arrogance, confidence. that confidence took me to an apprenticeship in switzerland. even if i did not speak the language, to try to work at the highest restaurants in france, and my grandmother, not only my mother, my grandmother gave me a lot of confidence. it is really from the grandmother that i learned about the kitchen, and it was my grandmother who really gave me the strength to go on to be in the professional kitchen, because my view, the black shaft did not even exist. of course, we have always good for years, for generations, but in terms of the fine dining rooms, we did not exist.
they saw me, their jaws dropped. tavis: talking about the lack of black folk or people of color in kitchens even today. we will come back to that, because you spent time talking about that in the book, but you were talking about your father. so your father says to you, "do not start a fight. do not get in a fight because you will be blamed for it." on the one hand, i read that as your father, met me put it this way, that could have been read by you as taking on an error, an attitude, a spirit of passivity, but being passive does not get you to where you are in the world that you operate in, so how did you balance this passive emotion that your father was trying to get you to take on with the fighter that you had to be? does that make sense? >> absolutely. knowing your spot. figuring out when the battle is
really yours, and i think the kitchen, there are a couple of places that i felt i belonged. the kitchen and with soccer, and both places are places or high emotion. when you play soccer, you are passionate, and that works to your advantage. you have to be aggressive. the same thing in the kitchen. you can be aggressive as a chef. you have to be passionate. you cannot be angry. knowing that and knowing what mattered to me -- my father was teaching us from the beginning, even the way he picked our names. my real name, he knew we needed an international name when he picked our names, like marcus and linda, knowing that we were not probably stay in sweden. my mother did not think about that, but he wanted to give us
international names. he was hard on us. we spoke english and the house because we had to prepare ourselves, and that is annoying when you are 8 years old, and you just want to ask your sister to pass to the milk at the dinner table, and you have to say it in english. he was constantly preparing us for the next step. tavis: you talked about this in the book. tell me how over the years he connected the dots back to ethiopia. >> for many years, i was not willing to take on my head african side. learning about be ethiopian. asking the american community but also the ethiopian community here to eat the food, starting to understand.
i have to go to understand the culture. that first time i came to ethiopia, the spices, the spice blend, the music. africa. it was not that i felt right away that i was home, but i thought this side was something i had to explore, not only as a chef but as a man. i came from this place. i knew i could not go back in just cook from the way i've been doing before, with france and sweden, maybe a little bit of an asian touch. i have to put africa in my food. tavis: your sister. how is she? where is she? >> my sister is in sweden. the reason i can sit here with you is really because my sisters, they take care of my mother. tavis: yes. >> in every family, i feel that
there is somebody that is maybe i'm going and doing things come out in the public, but we also have more behind which does the other stuff, and i have not lived in sweden for years. i know my mother is ok, and that is because of my sister. she spoke the language. i did not. when she met our birth father, and they had memories together. i did not. that is the difference. she was 5, and i was two. i always tell my sister, what did you do in that hospital? thousands and thousands of kids that are sick or had just been cured and do not have a home, and somehow, my sister pushed up
into the front of the line and make sure we got adopted. how that happened, i do not know, but that shows that we are really here because of others. we may not be in the driving seat. tavis: what have you learned from your birth father about your mother, the one you do not recall, do not know, do not have the picture of, but it gave all for you and linda? what do you know from him about her? >> it is a mystique question for me. i have asked him so many questions. each time i go there, i go there with the intention to no more. he comes from the village, a tribal leader. and he thinks that we were educated in the west, you cannot look back to a much. it is not a direct answer. he just feels that you have to move on. she is not with us.
but you guys are ok. it is hard to go deeper or get other information, but i asked him each time i get closer. sisters and brothers. i met my cousins on my mother's side. each time i get closer, and maybe one day i will get a picture. tavis: your father, who named you marcus samuelsson, he passed away. you were very close, but you did not make it to the funeral. your grandmother who helped do in the kitchen passed away, and you did not make it to the funeral. not getting closure on a loved ones. how do you turn the page when you're not able to get to either of their funerals. >> i do not know if i can, actually.
the journey of committing myself in the way that i have done, there is a price, and i am not saying i picked the right road, but i picked a road. the circumstances were that i cannot leave the states because i was working on my papers, and i had my mother's blessing. tavis: your immigration papers? >> yes, and i had my mother and sisters blessing, but that does not take away the sorrow of not being there, but i always laugh when people think about the journey. a black celebrity chef. so much of what i do is the journey of the anonymous black labor to the visible black labor, and what you have to sacrifice in order to reach
something, and it is not for everyone, but i do not think about it so much for me. i think about it 15 to 20, 30 years ago when our field is more diverse, and to create that road, there is a lot of sacrifice and a lot of people have to go through. among others. tavis: utah, karadzic -- courageously, i think, my word, not yours, courageously about your daughter, the disconnect, the reconnect, and i wonder going through the text how much of that we connection had to do with you are, if in fact it did, had to do with your not wanting her to grow up disconnected from a parent, like marcus grew up disconnected from a birth parent? >> writing about my daughter was probably the hardest part. tavis: i thought it probably
was. >> for so many reasons, but more than anything, i wanted to protect her. she knows that i have always loved her and have always loved her and will be there as a way i can be there for her as a family, as a father. i had to get help from my mother and sisters to learn that. this one was not necessarily on them. this one, i wanted to say, but i also wanted to be honest to say that i was a child when it happened, and i was becoming a man, and as i was moving into becoming a man, i was more ready to live up to my responsibilities. i thought about a lot of black men, the classic number of a black man not taking care of his child, and i hated that fact. but i cannot blame anybody else.
i blamed myself. it was not how i was raised. but my mother was always there in front of me, making sure that we took care of our responsibilities, not only on one side but on glove side. but when you do a book like this, for me, it was very important to be honest. there are valleys. there are ups and downs, but i have no right to take the reader's time if i am not going to be honest. tavis did you are absolutely right. i have to make the decision about who i want to talk to and who i do not want to talk to, and a lot of it comes down to who is authentic. i also love that you have tasty recipe is sprinkled throughout. -- tasty recipes sprinkled
throughout. you read some, and then you get a recipe. was that your decision? >> yes. this is a book for someone like me when i was coming up. i had to create a narrative. even the hats did not fit my hair. so much was about creating something that a young person going into a professional field would say, you know what? i can read that. not just on those days when we are picking up their words. not just when we are kicking at the white house. those days are not easy, but they are also a celebration. but also on the darker days. tavis: how did you know this is going to end up being your career path? you mentioned earlier what you really loved was soccer, and it turned out that soccer was not going to be a prayer, but the kitchen was calling.
>> around 16 or 17. but also what i learned in soccer. pretty soon, you have got to listen to the coach. you have to say, "yes, chef," and you have to work hard, both places, but if you do work hard, very rewarding. it is rewarding, and you are part of something that is larger than yourself. most kids, most boys, they are not meant to do this stuff. but if they learn something positive, they will do something positive, and the kitchen became my thing. i like it here. i'd like it here. i like it that the guys are a little bit older than me and talking about their journeys. i want to be like them, and then you match their intensity and you get some experience.
you know what? i am going to send you abroad. i am going to send you to france. and this relationship between the mentor and minty -- mentee, and now i am a mentor, and i think is fascinating for black people to cook, because for so many generations, to get out of the kitchen, now we have to work really, really hard to get back into the kitchen. we are not there. >> there -- tavis: there are two things to me to this very day. i do not know if it would change, but there are two things that tickle me. i have seen joy. as ironic as that sounds. oftentimes, if the pilot knows i am on the plane, he will walk out and introduce himself. "mr. smiley, i am glad to have
you on my flight." i get tickled when i find out that it is an african-american. it does not happen that much. i travel, and i am in a restaurant, and i want to go eat, and if the ship comes out and offers to introduce themselves, and they turn out to be black, i just am guilty -- giddy, because i know how hard it is to get there. >> i think integration and segregation is part of it. back in the day, all of the restaurants were black of, all of the hotels were black of, and all of the shops -- all of the hotels were black bow and -- owned, all of the restaurants were black owned, and all of the
chefs were black. i did not work this hard for you to go to college for you to go back in the kitchen. when you have been serving this for so long, it is very hard to say, you know what? i am a lawyer, i am a doctor, and now my kid is going to become a chef. we are just slowly getting back into the industry of service. i am a server. i take pleasure when my diners are having a good time, regardless, but getting back into it now, and i am happy that we have wall models like one half a block away from me, one in new orleans that started one of the first -- this is american history. we have got to take care of that. they did that in the 1940's and
1950's. she opened a restaurant in 1946. tavis: and how is wet rooster -- is red rooster doing? >> one-third of our guests are harlemites. if you are a professional living in harlem, you do not have to go downtown. you could. there is something you can put on your resume that says i worked in harlem. changing a bedroom community. you do not have to just live uptown and and work and play there. for people to say, hey, we are going to go up town tonight, we are going to eat up down, that challenges the farmers market and the grocery store to have fresh vegetables.
it can happen in urban america, and it has to happen in harlem. therefore, it can happen in chicago, detroit, l.a.n. tavis: if you are in new york and in harlem and can get into red rooster, you may want to try it. you can get to a bookstore or amazon and get a copy of the new text, the mmr from chef marcus samuelsson. the book is called "yes, chef: a memoir," and i can tell you that we just had an appetizer, and you get the four-course meal with the tax. glad to finally meet you. good to have you here. that is our show for tonight. until next time, thanks for watching, and keep the faith. today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org.
tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation on the fourth anniversary of title 9 and the state of college sports. that is next time. we will see you then. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where walmart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you.
captioning sponsored by macneil/lehrer productions >> brown: the presidential hopefuls took swipes at each other in interviews and in new ads, further raising the temperature of the campaign. good evening. i'm jeffrey brown. >> ifill: and i'm gwen ifill. on the newshour tonight, we get the latest on what's at stake as the attacks heat up, and romney prepares to choose a running mate. >> brown: then, getting the news from youtube. we look at a new study on changing viewing habits, and the impact on traditional media organizations. >> ifill: following the money: spencer michels reports on how democrats are tapping into support from gay voters.